Remembering Editor and Author Roy Finamore
The longtime editor published Ina Garten, Anne Willan, Martha Stewart, and more.
Howdy cookbook fans!
Earlier this month, cookbook editor, author, co-author, and food and prop stylist Roy Finamore died at the age of 70. Finamore was prolific and accomplished: the list of cookbook authors he worked with includes Martha Stewart, Diana Kennedy, Jean Anderson, Anne Willan, Lee Bailey, Carole Walter, Tom Colicchio, Bobby Flay, Gale Gand, Jacques Pépin, Marcus Samuelsson, and Rick Moonen. He was responsible for acquiring Ina Garten’s first cookbook, The Barefoot Contessa, a book that changed cookbook publishing forever. He also authored several books of his own, including 2006’s James Beard Award-winning Tasty: Get Great Food on the Table Every Day.
Last week, cookbook author and Finamore collaborator Molly Stevens (All About Braising) reached out to make sure I had heard the news. When I offered to run a few remembrances from his friends, little did I know I’d soon have an inbox full of memories a few days later! I am running them below; if you knew Roy and would like to share some memories, I’m opening up comments to everyone on this post.
Roy was, without exception, one of the most creative and brilliant individuals I’ve ever worked with, much less had the good fortune to call a friend. Beyond his massive intellect, Roy was a gifted and intuitive cook with boundless curiosity around ingredients, flavors, and techniques. I believe he was happiest in the kitchen, especially cooking for those he loved. Over the past 25 years, Roy and I spent untold hours cooking together, and in between those times, we’d call, text, and email to scheme and laugh about cooking, work, and life. Roy was my favorite kitchen companion and always the first person I turned to for advice.
—Molly Stevens, cookbook author.
I don’t know how long Roy worked at Clarkson Potter but I first worked for him on a book by Lee Bailey with Ella Brennan called New Orleans in about 1991.
Lee Bailey, Lee Klein and I comprised a team that would invade various grand Garden District homes for a day. It was real location shooting, using the homeowner’s china and flatware. While the Lees set up their tablescapes, I photographed discreet snippets and interior details. The intention was to convey a hint of some longed-for mysterious South without revealing whole rooms. We were careful not to create a catalog wish list of art and furniture for those with thieving in mind.
At lunchtime food would arrive from one of three Brennan restaurants: Commander’s Palace, Mr. B’s, or The Palace Cafe. Then it became all hands on deck, as nothing would work right in a cookbook if the food didn’t. It was a good system made pleasant with competent people.
Publishers find it risky to hand out money in lump sums and photographers need it when they need it so I do recall a prickly phone call or two to Roy about these matters. Never about editing or cropping or any other visual nuts and bolts that you might expect. Through all of it Roy and I still had not met.
That book was successful enough that a year or so later we embarked on a second project called Long Weekends. Our locations were all over the country from Dorset, Vermont to Orcas Island, Washington. It was the same M.O., but this time we added chef James Lartin as chief cook and bottle washer. Still the un-met Roy was left pulling puppet strings from his office in New York.
Lee Bailey went on to do other books with other teams. I didn’t think of myself as exclusively a food photographer. I’d done books on Monticello and Colonial Williamsburg that were more architecture and interiors. I was working a lot for House & Garden doing fine gardens. If you work for “shelter” magazines you end up photographing whatever they put in front of you. But to stay in the swim you need to schmooze with editors. I’d been in Mississippi for ten years and it was time for some visits.
In 1997 I got myself a decent suit and did some rounds. Roy was one of the first I saw. Office buildings in New York can be a bit mind numbing (to the freelancer) and Clarkson Potter was no exception. Traveling the hall, most glass cage offices had the photos of kids and grandkids that you would expect, but then you’re at Roy’s door and in a different world. My memory is telling me there were even voodoo dolls with pins in them. It was all very civil but he didn’t have anything going on and I’m sure he was wondering who this guy in a suit across from him really was.
A year later Roy called and he had a book to do with Anne Willan at Château du Feÿ in Burgundy where she lived and ran a cooking school called La Varenne. The warren—as in rabbits. It had to start in 2 weeks on July 14th with the celebration of Bastille day. Would I be interested?
Thus began nearly two years of shuttling back and forth to Burgundy and the little estate surrounding the 17th century Chateau du Fey. Anne’s book From My Château Kitchen was as much a personal memoir as a cookbook. An Englishwoman’s transformation to being head of her own French cooking school in Paris to moving down the line into Dukes of Burgundy slow food territory. Right to the agrarian source of the food itself and along with it some of the more fanciful aspects of country life.
The château was set up with the center hall as communal (living, dining, and small kitchen), with the right wing as the school with industrial kitchen—with lots of rooms upstairs, and the left wing as Anne and her husband Mark’s quarters, a business office area, a phenomenal culinary library and more bedrooms. The surrounding courtyards and walled vegetable and fruit gardens and pigeonniers were functioning more or less as when built in about 1620. It was in many ways ideal for an extended house party, and that’s what we turned it into.
Roy was there for most of it, and he was very hands on this time. It was his baby and he had done his homework and was not just there for a mini vacation. He and Anne more or less invented the book as we were shooting over several seasons. Molly Stevens, then jack of all food trades—now well-established cookbook author and jill of all food trades—was there as Anne ’s right hand in all that you need a main droite for. Roy’s friend Marian Young, who had her own literary agency, came from New York and charmed us all. Randall Price, chef, writer, actor in PBS style travelogues kept the school in shape when not in session; regaled with his not always tall tales. Even my father George came one evening from Paris on the train and fit right in. There were numbers of interns who rotated in and out and participated in the work and the play.
We worked all day shooting dishes with the chateau as a backdrop or out into Burgundy proper at a Chablis winery, at the cornichon man’s farm, at a jam maker’s up in the Morvan, in a catacomb root cellar under a 13th century cathedral, or at an artisanal cheesemakers sterilized “lab” with the curds and the herds.
Supper time started with some libation and then we usually ate what had been photographed during the day or something being tested for the next day. Any given meal found 10 or 12 of us in lively conversation. Mark was an economist so he filled us in on the EU and the euro which were about to happen. How would I know which king was which without seeing them on banknotes, I wondered. There was internet but no twitter or smart phones so we were not buried in our devices. We pretty much enjoyed each other and everyone pitched in for dishes and cleanup. You were given your own napkin and ring for the duration. If du Feÿ was Showboat then we were one big happy family.
In the early 2000’s a woman from Memphis named Ellen Rolfes, whom I had only known socially, contacted me about a cookbook called Occasions to Savor for the Delta Sigma Theta sorority. Delta Sigma Theta was formed in 1913 at Howard University and currently has over 350,000 initiated members. Tempted by this (and spurred on by having 3 kids in private school), I called Roy. His tenure at Clarkson Potter was over so he was available. We needed to do it in sorority members houses around Washington, DC. so he found a local chef and we all met at Union Station for the first time.
I stayed in the attic room of photographer/sculptor Bill and Sandy Christenbury’s house on McComb Street. Roy stayed on a friend’s couch. Roy, a city kid, didn’t or wouldn’t drive so every day I had to go pick him up in my van. The van had a faulty sensor in the automatic transmission that prevented moving from third to fourth gear every third try. Not the best for Beltway driving, but it held lots of trays of food. It all started as a bit of a comedy of errors with two crazy white boys helming a cookbook for the most serious of black sororities which claim as one of several nicknames “Devastating Divas”.
In the end not so devastating once our team cohered and the mission became clear. Any pro will tell you that if you sign on, you do your damnedest to make it work. Everybody brings something. Despite his iconoclasm Roy was always serious about work.
A coda to my working life with Roy came on a one day project—again produced by avowed Elvis nut Ellen Rolfes in Memphis: Graceland’s Table. It was a book of recipes from Elvis fans—end of story. As ideas for a book go, it was nothing if not commercial. One featured dish was a coconut-encrusted chicken submitted by a thirteen year old. Graceland is a justly famous but oddly un-grand, suburban colonial with Southern columns slapped on as a porte-cochere. It is open every day of the year but for Tuesdays in January. Nevertheless, I tapped Roy, who corralled Molly Stevens, and we picked a day and went. And did it. In one day.
The Rendezvous BBQ where we repaired to lick our wounds at the end of that day was the last place I saw Roy until he debuted his own cookbook, Tasty, in 2006 at L&M restaurant in Oxford, Mississippi, an hour plus from me in Sumner. It was a big splash made more fun for knowing most of the guests. Roy was all over signing and schmoozing. He was having whirling dervish kind of fun.
Then this winter some of our same friends at that event told me of Roy in hospice in Brooklyn. I had to go to New York to photograph my third version of the 42nd street panorama. With that project in the can we traipsed out to say goodbye. His room reminded me of his office back at Clarkson Potter. He owned the place— with games and newspapers and magazines strewn about, but of course also now the tubes and wires. We talked a bit of old times but you can’t get too deep in 15 minutes. We traded Instagram pics of our grandchild and his grandnephews and grandnieces, who will never know him.
He was so proud of his new blue hair, saying: “At last I’m an old blue-haired lady”. I had to fight like hell with myself not to take a picture.
—Langdon Clay, photographer.
Roy was one of the best editors I ever worked with, and that is saying a great deal.
—Anne Willan, cookbook author and cooking instructor.
Among the great cookbook editors of our time, Roy Finamore was unique. A James Beard Award-winning author in this own right, he was also a versatile collaborator who captured the voices of chefs as diverse as seafood expert Rick Moonen, Harlem restaurateur Marcus Samuelsson, and pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini, cooking alongside them and then streamlining their recipes to make them friendly to the home cook. As if that wasn’t enough, he was a talented prop stylist who made the food of Jacques Pépin, pastry chef Gale Gand, and even Elvis Presley look timelessly beautiful. In all these roles, Roy had a consistent approach. He was first and foremost an artist.
So it was fitting that in the pandemic lockdown, he taught himself weaving and turned out artisan napkins and placemats. He was still working his loom from his hospice bed a few days before he died.
A long-time editor at Clarkson Potter, Roy brought his visual talents to the books of Lee Bailey, Martha Stewart, and Anne Willan. He had a nose for talent. His most notable find: he acquired and launched a book by a then little-known Long Island caterer. The Barefoot Contessa began with a tiny print run and went on to become a runaway New York Times bestseller, a perennial classic with millions of copies in print. Ina Garten remains the top-selling cookbook author in the country.
Roy became the impresario of every photo shoot he worked on because he understood all aspects of food and cookbooks. He could size up in an instant exactly how long a recipe would take, which dishes would wilt when they sat and which could hold, and how long it would take to get the photo right, from which he could calculate the order that the dishes should be made.
When we discussed the photography for his book One Potato, Two Potato (coauthored with Molly Stevens), for which he chose both the designer and the photographer, he told me he planned to put the vichyssoise in a white bowl against a creamy background. I demurred.
Wouldn’t it look better against something more colorful? It would not, he informed me derisively. The photo, still surpassingly elegant twenty-two years after it was published, became the cover.
His culinary apprenticeship took place beside his Italian grandmother, an exacting cook, beginning when he was about four. From her, he inherited an approach summed up in the introduction to Tasty: “Good, simple food is meant to be shared and enjoyed. Cook often.” That outlook, and the memorable dishes within, earned him a James Beard Award in General Cookbooks, the most competitive category, where Tasty triumphed over hundreds of other titles.
He was a craftsman in the kitchen, neatly squaring pastry off with his hands before rolling it out, nimbly pleating Chinese dumplings, jury-rigging a steamer for crabs from what we had on hand. He would arrive at Christmas bearing all manner of jarred and bottled treats he had made over the summer: sour cherries in rum, silky tomato passata, a phenomenal Worcestershire sauce. Then he would inhabit the kitchen for the next week, turning out three superb yet simple meals a day. Nothing made him happier than when people loved his food.
As a writer, he had a light touch on the page and a direct, knowing voice. Reading his recipes, you feel him looking over your shoulder, issuing injunctions, cajoling, correcting. He didn’t suffer fools. An editorial query reflecting inattention and a lack of rigor would be met with a stinging rebuke.
When he sent me the manuscript for Tasty, he enclosed a note. “I wrote a book. I hope you like it.”
—Rux Martin, cookbook editor.
Again, comments are open on this issue to one and all, so feel free to share any memories you might care to of Roy or his work. I’ll see you Friday.
In putting together this post, I GASPED when I saw this cover.
Thank you for sharing this, Paula. Roy reached out to me when I was running cookbooks at Amazon and he was still at Clarkson Potter. We stayed in touch for awhile and he invited me to my first official NYC book party at a posh apartment on the Upper East Side (it was a lifestyle/entertaining tome) when I was in town for Book Expo. Loved his book TASTY so very much. He will be missed.
I 'knew of' Roy, but did not know him. That said, these touching tributes are some of the finest writing I have read in a very, very long time. Thank you all for capturing so vividly your impressions of someone that I intend to "get to know" belatedly through his writing and work. May his legacy -- and your tributes -- live on to inspire writers, designers and many others.